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Welcome to the eighth annual installment of the Ward's 10 Best Engines awards. Our list of the year's best engines remains the auto industry's only “best of” list to concentrate solely on the engine, what we consider to be any vehicle's single most important collection of components.
In eight years, the 10 Best Engines competition has never lacked for controversial choices and dissent from losers and winners alike. But the awards continue as the single most influential engine-development barometer for auto makers, suppliers and yes, even consumers. We are gratified that auto makers — and the suppliers with whom they cooperate in powertrain development — covet a 10 Best Engines award, just as we are gratified that the awards have achieved the credibility necessary to achieve the former.
For 2002, nothing about our few 10 Best Engines rules has changed. All engines compete on equal footing. Small-displacement 4-cyl. engines, potentially hamstrung because they typically lack the amount of pleasing horsepower and torque common to larger engines, nonetheless must earn a winning place among the smooth and powerful multi-cylinder powerplants. That they do indeed win is testimony to the numerous other attributes Ward's Best Engines judges evaluate for each engine.
We toyed with raising the price ceiling for this year's entries, but Ward's editors believe there will continue to be downward price pressures in all sectors of the economy — thus to remain eligible for a Best Engines award, engines must be in vehicles with a base price of no more than $50,000.
Finally, eligible engines must be fitted in regular-production vehicles, sold at franchised dealerships, during the 2001 calendar year.
3L DOHC I-6
Engine type: 3L DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Fact is, BMW has placed on our 10 Best Engines list in some form or another of its revered inline 6-cyl. layout since the competition's inception in 1995.
You don't need us to recite BMW's credentials as the industry's crown prince of straight sixes, but it's nonetheless instructive to consider how carefully the company with “Motor” in its title nurtures its gloriously refined brood.
For a fleeting moment in the new century, we'd worried that BMW — distracted by dalliances like the star-crossed Rover Group purchase and the subsequent forays into front-wheel-drive cars and V-6 engines that came with the Rover package — had lost its focus. Its straight sixes still were velvet-smooth and willing, but any number of lesser-priced (and lesser-badged) 6-cyl. competitors, both inline and vee, were surpassing the Bavarians' horsepower exertions — by an alarming margin. In fact, in 2000, we opted to award a Best Engines win to BMW's 2.5L I-6 rather than the 2.8L version favored by most critics, because we thought the 2.8L's 193 hp was beginning to look too meager in relation to the competition.
Not to worry, though, as BMW merely stutter-stepped before bolting for the finish line. For model-year 2001, BMW strapped on its excellent double VANOS infinitely variable valve timing system for the 2.5L engine and added a displacement bump in addition to VANOS 3L for the outgoing 2.8L variant. The already buttery 2.8L's horsepower and torque both jumped back into a range that not only is highly competitive but firmly in the range of what we'd call “healthy” at a rock-solid 75 hp per liter.
This year, Ward's judges were entranced by all the expected NVH virtues, combined with an amusingly muscular midrange that was missing before double-VANOS. And in the 330 Ci application, there was an intoxicating basso exhaust note when dipping into the throttle, particularly at low speeds, that cemented the experience. Our only complaint is that the new engine places expectations so high that you're sometimes disappointed by the low 6,000-rpm redline and a slight dropoff of “pull” in the upper rev range.
Many argue that BMW gets premium money for its iron, but there's no arguing that the 3L DOHC I-6 is a premium engine (the cylinder liners are the only meaningful “iron” in it, incidentally). The 330 Ci coupe we tested was pure sculpture and trimmed out at not quite $39,000, which for the record we find quite reasonable. But that awesome straight-six makes any 3-Series a bargain.
3.2L DOHC I-6
Engine type: 3.2 DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Okay, here's an easy one. Take all the superlatives you find in the previous glowing write-up of BMW's 3L inline 6-cyl. — all the talk of sparkling NVH and beautiful balance and heraldic exhaust-pipe trumpeting. Then add, oh, just another 97 hp.
And 0-to-60 mph (97 km/h) in 5 seconds.
And the ‘I'll-take-two-of-'em’ price of $46,900.
That spells WINNER in our book. And if you're saying, “Well, who the hell wouldn't go for the marvelous M3 mill, because everybody knows serious money buys serious stuff,” listen here: BMW was asking pretty much the same money last year for the M3, and we did not — repeat, did not — vote its 3.2L inline-six one of last year's 10 Best Engines.
That was for a couple of reasons. Mainly because we knew that Europe and other markets were getting the “real” M3 engine: the one making a rollicking 320 hp from 3.2L. Second, some testers found last year's M3 engine lacking in the area of low-speed driveability and thought its throttle tip-in too fussy. In short, we believed the well-rounded “standard” 3L engine, just 15 hp shy of the '01 M3 unit's 240 hp, was a better everyday companion.
Obviously, those misgivings about last year's M3 engine (internally coded S52) have been eradicated. As quickly, it should be said, as your right foot can snap open the six individual throttle butterflies, one of the we're-really-serious-now little toys that make the 2002 M3 3.2L engine (S54) something genuinely special.
Things getting a little humdrum around the house? Get in the M3 and jab the button for the “M Driving Dynamics Control.” This engages a “sport” setting for opening those six throttle bodies; just like that, you've altered the throttles' fully electronic control, quickening the ratio of their activation in relation to your movement of the throttle pedal. It's an amazing engine management trick. And it's not just to put another button on the dash: the S54's already brainwave-quick throttle action becomes sharper than a fresh-out-of-the-factory Wusthof. Outstanding fun!
You might want to pooh-pooh the M3 engine's iron block, as we're wont to do. But you wouldn't be taking into account that the M3 inline 6-cyl., when approaching its 7,900-rpm power peak, is developing piston speeds comparable to those in a Formula One engine. So shut up and be thankful for the iron encapsulation necessary to keep where they belong pistons traveling at 72 feet per second.
Other factors that contribute to the S54's 333 hp — that's an astonishing specific output of 103 hp/L — are a widening of the double VANOS variability range, a unique design to reduce valvetrain mass and a no-nonsense 11.5:1 compression ratio.
End result: Out-of-this-world thrust — anywhere, we mean ANYWHERE, in the M3's expansive rev range — and remarkable civility when required. This is one serious engine.
5L SOHC V-8
Engine type: 5L SOHC 90° V-8
Progess. It isn't always about moving forward. In Mercedes' case, moving back is progress, too.
In the early 1990s, everybody wanted a Mercedes 500E. The car, unveiled at the Paris auto show in 1990, represented a new attitude from Mercedes: in the engine bay of the revered W124 E-Class platform was shoehorned a thumping 5L DOHC V-8, the first time the factory had seen fit to put a V-8 in its midsize sedan.
It was an intense car, largely hand-built in Zuffenhausen, Germany, in a cooperative deal with Porsche AG. The 500E's V-8 made 322 hp and 354 lb.-ft. (480 Nm) of torque. Oh, and the car cost $80,000. Although the 500E was special, even by Mercedes standards, that 80 grand wasn't too much more than what customers those days expected to pay for any Benz packing a V-8.
Juxtapose that with 2002's winning 5L Mercedes V-8. In the tested ML500 we're getting 288 hp and 325 lb.-ft (441 Nm), so it's just 34 hp and 29 lb.-ft. short of the 1990 DOHC V-8 that was considered firebreathing. And the price? Almost half of what it cost a decade ago — the ML500's base price is $44,950, making it — by our reckoning — perhaps the least-expensive V-8-toting Mercedes of all time. Heck, even the S-Class flagship with this motor only costs the $80,000 Merc got for the 500E — a decade ago!
Stuff in this 5L V-8 and the 2002 ML500 isn't your typical slug SUV: 0-to-60 mph (0-to-97 km/h) comes up in 7.7 seconds, plenty quicker than with last year's 4.3L V-8.
Best Engines judges immediately recognized that this engine, in the M-Class, generates decidedly serious thrust, combined with the sort of premium NVH “package” that we expect from badges like Mercedes. There's no question that the 13% torque hike, and the fact that all 325 lb.-ft. are ready at just 2,700 rpm (not far off the gruntiness standard set by Ford's 5.4L V-8), makes an enormous difference in the subjective “feel” of this engine. Or consider that this 5L unit helped to push off the list Lexus' awesomely refined and quite forceful 4.3L DOHC V-8.
With the 5L SOHC V-8, new to the M-Class, Mercedes offers one of the industry's most sophisticated, most powerful V-8s at a price that would have been inconceivably low just a decade ago. That's the sort of progress we appreciate.
Ford Motor Co.
5.4L SOHC V-8/5.4L supercharged SOHC V-8
Engine type: 5.4L SOHC 90° V-8
When Ford Motor Co.'s Triton 5.4L SOHC V-8 first won a Best Engines spot in 1997, nobody expected that, six years later, this “truck engine” would become a stalwart member of the 10 Best Engines list.
But six consecutive wins prove that Ford takes seriously the idea of continuous improvement for its highest-volume V-8 engine. The 5.4L Triton started life at 235 hp and 333 lb.-ft. (447 Nm) of torque. Then a significant power upgrade in 1999 meant we're now enjoying a stout 260 hp and 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm).
Now, Ford engineers are after refinement and NVH. Peter J. Dowdling, Ford's modular V-8/V-10 Engine Program Manager, led a team whose goal was to bring the Triton engine family up to class-leading refinement levels. Although they really don't want to name names, the team was gunning for Toyota's Tundra, which is the acknowledged NVH king of fullsize pickups.
Eighteen months of work delivered an all-new block casting that increased the thickness of the bulkheads and skirt walls; in addition, a new ribbing pattern and a thicker pan rail also helped to absorb noise and vibration. About 18 lbs. (8kg) was added, but Dowdling says that even the beefed-up new block weighs less than other iron-block competitors. “When we added this ‘content,’ we did it sparingly,” Dowdling asserts.
While they were about it, the team also specified an all-new acoustic top cover (plastic shroud to us lay folks) and a mega-cool metal-plastic-metal (MPM) oil pan, a unique sandwich-style design that really cuts potential drumming sounds. These guys even optimized the cam-cover grommets, for heaven's sake.
And of course there's also the requisite “strategic” intake tuning, leveraging a new resonator layout to deliver that just-right intake sound.
Dowdling's team trots out a lot of noise-emanation graphs to demonstrate that the new Triton whips any other truck engine in terms of radiated noise and in a host of other technical noise measurements.
They could've saved their graph paper. Ward's testers immediately realized the 5.4L Triton not only was less noisy, but the noise that is there seemed a lot more pleasant. The newly refined Triton, based on claims from our ears and butts, is at least the NVH/refinement equal of any light-truck engine.
Add that to still-class-leading power and torque delivery, and Ford engineers have ensured that the 5.4L Triton continues as the premier choice in truck engines.
And to really raise the hair on the back of your neck, step into the supercharged, 380-pony Triton, still available only in the Lightning pickup. It's heart-stopping.
General Motors Corp.
4.2L DOHC I-6
Engine type: 4.2L DOHC I-6
All-new straight-six engine programs are practically non-existent these days, victims, we're told, of years of front-wheel-drive vehicle development and intensifying crash standards.
Ron Kociba, GM Powertrain chief engineer for the all-new Vortec 4200 I-6, is fond of reminding, “We could've had a V-8,” when deciding on what engine layout GM's next generation of midsize-truck/SUV powertrain development would focus.
But Kociba and his engineering team wanted an inline 6-cyl. for all the NVH potential and for a number of other I-6 design advantages. They wanted an I-6 because they knew it would make a statement. They wanted an I-6 because they knew it could be soooo good.
“Good” when describing the 2002 Vortec 4200 is a bit of an understatement. “Creamy” said one Ward's tester. “Smooth like rabbit fur on the inside of your winter glove” is appropriate, too.
But Kociba says other factors made the inline 6-cyl. the right choice. It's easier and cheaper to manufacture (only one cylinder head is a big deal in the manufacturing equation). And “hot” and “cold” sides of the engine are almost totally demarcated, meaning a lot more potential areas to site heat-sensitive components — like the powertrain control module, cleverly mounted in the always-cool intake tract.
GM's first new inline 6-cyl. truck engine in 15 years — and GM's first since dropping I-6s altogether in '93 — proves, says Kociba, that DOHC engines are plenty applicable to trucks. The new Vortec 4200 isn't just “a top-ender” he asserts, pointing out that 90% of the 4.2L straight-six's peak torque is on tap at just 1,600 rpm.
Never mind, then, that the Vortec's 270 hp pretty much whips any V-8 truck engine you'd care to name. The abundant power and torque spilling from this excellent design is readily evident, as the Vortec pulls GM's somewhat portly new midsize SUVs with genuine gusto.
We also applaud the aluminum block and variable exhaust timing, which cunningly handles the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) function, eliminating the EGR valve and cutting hydrocarbon emissions by 25%.
GM's Vortec 4200 is a smart design, germinated by thoughtful and profound focus on an engineering goal. The final product is a delight, on paper and on the road. We can't wait for the future variants from this modular engine family.
General Motors Corp.
6.6L Duramax OHV V-8
Engine type: 6.6L 90° turbodiesel V-8
Every now and then, you've just gotta go for displacement.
Last year, when General Motors Corp.'s Duramax 6.6L turbodiesel V-8 won a Best Engines award in its first year of production, we thought perhaps we'd just been overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of a totally new V-8 diesel with every available new-generation design trick. We just don't get diesels in this market, you know, and the Duramax is a damn good one, even if it is offered only in medium-duty pickups.
But this year, we realized it's probably a bit simpler, more elemental than that: 6.6L of displacement and 520 lb.-ft. (705 Nm) of torque is intoxicating. Nothing corrupts like power.
The colossal torque can almost change your life after a week in various whiny 4-cyl. conveyances. One begins to be infected by this uncannily smooth diesel and the equally amazing 5-speed automatic transmission that doles out the Duramax's twist with the aplomb typically associated with a luxury car.
With its second consecutive win, the Duramax confirms that General Motors Corp. and its diesel-expert affiliate, Isuzu Motors Ltd., are enjoying a prosperous relationship. DMAX, their joint-venture Duramax assembly plant in Morain, OH, still hasn't caught up with demand — and that's practically impossible in today's glutted and slumping U.S. market.
In fact, that's our only gripe with the Duramax: GM can't make enough for the medium-duty market, and we want this engine in something a bit more light vehicle-oriented.
Crank it up, GM. One of your past problems has been not quickly moving to leverage a winner. The Duramax is a winner — get it to buyers outside the medium-duty sector.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd.
2L DOHC I-4
Engine type: 2L DOHC I-4
For Honda Motor Co. Ltd. this year, it wasn't so much a matter of would one of its engines win — it was which of its engines would win. The still very-independent-thank-you company prides itself on its reputation for standard-setting engine development, and 2002 finds Honda in a sweet spot, awash with a generation of great new engines.
In the end, a hard-earned Best Engines win goes to the Acura upscale division's sparkling new DOHC I-4, boasting “intelligent” augmentation of Honda's well-known VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift, Electronic Control) variable valve timing system.
The so-called i-VTEC setup adds camshaft phasing (on intake and exhaust cams) to the now-famous Jekyll-and-Hyde personality evidenced by Honda's performance-oriented VTEC 4-cyl. engines. So in addition to variable control of valve timing, duration and lift, the camshafts themselves also can be “phased” through a 50-degree range to provide comparatively infinite degrees of VTEC, as opposed to the former ability to alter valve timing, duration and lift only in two distinct modes. The base Acura RSX — and Honda's upcoming Civic Si — use a less radical i-VTEC layout that enables cam phasing only for the intake camshaft.
The RSX Type-S engine is the same as the lower-powered RSX/Civic Si unit, but its critical innards are structurally enhanced to handle the hairy rpm the RSX Type-S unit is expected to deliver.
So how does this new 2L I-4 beat the Honda S2000's 2L mill, the one about which we practically peed ourselves last year? Flexibility.
Although the new i-VTEC engine's horsepower peak still settles into what is nosebleed altitude for everyday engines — 7,400 rpm, to be exact — most Ward's testers found the Type-S mill to be much more accommodating throughout the rev range. You won't ever mistake its 142 lb.-ft. (193 Nm) of torque as being held hostage from a muscle car, but the peak comes at a more docile 6,000 rpm rather than 7,500 rpm, where the S2000 delivers its peak 153 lb.-ft. (207 Nm).
Moreover, the Acura's Type S 4-cyl.'s solid doses of around-town torque are combined with the ability to rev sweetly to the redline but with markedly less eardrum assault than the fun-but-frenzied S2000 engine.
The Acura Type-S 4-cyl. doesn't have to be continually flailed to redline to produce satisfaction. The result is more perceived refinement and a welcome measure of sound abatement. Although they're two totally different engines, one tester said the Type-S engine is not unlike the S2000's with a blanket thrown over it. We love the S2000 powerplant — but it needs a blanket thrown over it. That's the refinement that Acura brings to the party.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
3.5L DOHC V-6
Engine type: 3.5L 60° DOHC V-6
The bad news: We have to say “so long” to Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s spectacular 3L “VQ” DOHC V-6, retiring from Best Engines competition after seven consecutive wins only because, (paradoxically to us,) Nissan is discontinuing in most world markets the 3L variant of the ground-breaking modular VQ engine family.
The good news: the larger 3.5L VQ we now get to replace the 3L simply is more of a good thing. Chocolate fudge smothering chocolate ice cream, if you will.
The outgoing 3L VQ checked out producing a maximum of 227 hp. The new 3.5L V-6, as tested in the 2002 Altima, makes 240 hp. In the Maxima, the engine's tuned for 260 horses, and next year we'll see it develop even more juice when it shows up for duty in the reincarnated Nissan 350Z sports coupe.
Sharp readers will know that we first tested the 3.5L VQ V-6 last year in its inaugural application, the Pathfinder SUV. To save time, we'll summate by saying that the aging Pathfinder was not the ideal showcase for the engine.
That's changed, of course, proving our assertion that a Best Engines award often comes down to an auto maker's acuteness in matching the right engine with the right vehicle (and, sometimes, the right transmission, too). In the new Altima chassis, the 3.5L VQ is downright invigorating: there's momentous thrust in every gear, right through to the redline — thanks, Nissan, for the available 5-speed manual, by the way — and this engine feels stronger that its 240-hp rating. For the new engine, though, it's at least partially explained by the healthy 246 lb.-ft. (334 Nm) that comes from the extra half-liter.
The 3.5L VQ V-6 is a rare treat: delightfully flexible, but backed up by the muscle of bona fide torque. And it's not all attributable simply to extra displacement. The 3.5L VQ V-6 offers some serious upgrades: an excellent infinitely variable valve timing system, a first to the VQ family and, Nissan's engineers claim, the world's first variable valve timing to use electromagnetic control of camshaft phasing.
Finally, we're impressed and relieved that the VQ family's competitor-crushing NVH and refinement haven't been compromised. A new “silent” camshaft chain drive and strategic block stiffening pitch in to ensure levels of refinement that continue to be the envy of engine designers worldwide. After building the world's best V-6 engine for the last seven years, Nissan engineers haven't relaxed — their new 3.5L VQ V-6 again rewrites the definition for “world-class.”
2.7L DOHC H-6
Engine type: 2.7L opposed DOHC H-6
Each year, there are a couple of Best Engines about which there is no dissent — they're clear cut winners from the moment you turn the key. The Porsche AG “boxer” 6-cyl. is one of them.
If you need an example of the differences that result from more lavish spending up, down, and across the development and sourcing chain, look no further than the Boxster's 2.7L flat 6-cyl. Its layout is identical to Subaru's 3L opposed 6-cyl., yet Porsche's effort easily is the more convincingly executed. As it should be, we'll admit, in a limited-purpose 2-seat roadster that costs nigh on $50,000.
But our normally cost-conscious Best Engines judges forget their parsimonious affiliations when the throttle drops on this beautifully developed engine. And everyone is transfixed by the deeply satisfying intake and exhaust sounds; the Porsche engineers responsible for coaxing this alluring symphony from unfeeling metal and plastic should be awarded, well, whatever is the German equivalent of knighthood. As we've said before, this engine — and the opposed 6-cyl. in the costly 911 — would be a Best Engines winner on sound quality alone.
Of course, that's not all there is. The specific output of 80 hp/L puts Porsche's smallest engine squarely in the “premium” league, and if we're entranced by the engine's sounds, we're turned equally lovestruck by the throttle — so perfectly weighted that you'd swear Porsche snuck in at night, tapped into your biorhythms, plotted out a graph of your ideal throttle response and transferred it into the engine-management software. The throttle is that perfect, that intuitive.
All right, the initial tip-in isn't exactly reassuring, as you fully engage the clutch and for one frightening moment the engine just sighs and sits there, like a petulant child in “time out.” But then the Porsche glories of Le Mans past are quickly summoned and the boxer engine strides for the redline with the confident power of a seasoned fullback, neither hurrying nor dallying, the 5-speed manual's gearing perfectly selected to fully leverage the boxer's inherent balance and short stroke.
Switch gears, do it all again, with that awesome soundtrack wailing behind your right ear. With this engine, every drive is the last lap at Le Mans.
1.8L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Engine type: 1.8L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Auto makers of the world, fix your gaze upon this engine.
How does Volkswagen AG manage to give out this much in cars that don't cost a whole lot? After all, this grunty but high-tech little powerhouse now can be had with a Volkswagen badge for around $19,000. Go to the domestics — and more than one of the Japanese auto makers, too — and that same money gets you some crappy unit that deserves the moniker of “4-banger.”
But somehow, VW makes a business case for doling out in inexpensive cars: DOHC, five valves per cylinder, turbocharging and intercooling — and the bragging rights of an even 100 hp/L. That exposes a $19,000 Pontiac Grand Am and its grubby pushrod V-6, while similarly thrashing any 4-cyl. from anybody in this price range.
This engine has enjoyed a unique distinction of migrating on and off the Best Engines list a couple of times, usually depending on the power level. We originally liked this 4-cyl. technical showcase at its initial 150-hp rating, so it stands to reason we're happier still with an added 30 hp. The 180-hp rating has done nothing to blunt this engine's outstanding NVH properties — the VW 1.8T continues as one of the market's sweetest, most powerful 4-cyl. engines, and to call it a “base” engine is a disservice.
We applaud VW's generosity in providing this level of engine techno-finery at the bottom part of the market, but we remain at a loss to explain the yo-yo marketing that dictates this engine's ever-changing power ratings. Last year, VW-brand vehicles got the engine at 150 hp and the up-market Audi unit enjoyed the advantage of the 170-hp rating for sedans and 180 hp for the TT sports car.
Although we can't see the reason for such minor distinctions within a brand, the rationale is at least evident. But for 2002, we're befuddled by the VW brand's access to the punchy 180-hp rating for the 1.8T, while Audi's all-new A4 remains saddled with the 170-hp version. Huh?
That's OK, VW. We're happy to point buyers to the Golf or Jetta 1.8T, thankful that VW makes available in affordable cars one of the most technically sophisticated 4-cyl. engines available at any price.
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